Rise of digital subscriptions at The New York Times

Print circulation and print advertising used to the bread and butter of news outlets. The Internet came along and also turned the industry onto its head. Digital subscriptions suddenly became possible. Folks started to pay for online access more and more; which would cannibalize the print business. As fewer readers read the papers, print advertising took a hit. Advertising became annoying to users who were willing to pay for the luxury of reading content in peace.

News outlets have to respond to survive. Names such as New York Times, Wall Street Journals, Washington Post or The Atlantic are leading the charge among outlets to have a strong subscription business. I spent some time digging through the numbers from The Times’ earnings reports to see how its digital subscription transformed over the years. This is how you can understand NYT business

The digital sub count and digital news sub count reach all time high in Q3 2019

The gap between Digital News Subscription Revenue and Print Subscription has been contracting since 2016

In terms of its importance to the subscription segment, digital subscription revenue has been on the rise. In Q3 2019, it made up slightly more than 43% of the total subscription business, the all-time high mark

Hence, digital subscription increasingly became an important part of the total revenue

First look at Disney Plus

Disney+, the biggest initiative and priority in the near future of the iconic company, went live today in the US and Canada. I have been using it for 2-3 hours and below is the summary of my experience so far.

The sign-up is pretty standard and smooth. Nothing major. Even though there was some reported difficulty in finding the app on Apple Store

Fairly expectedly, the app encountered some technical issues which users widely reported here. I have had my fair share as well

That led to Disney+ Help twitter page issued the statement below

In addition to the technical mishaps, I was a bit frustrated by the User Interface. While you can download episodes from the mobile app, I couldn’t find the feature on the browser version. I am not sure if that was intended to limit the downloads, but I was under impression that it was possible.

At the end of a movie, you are presented with a suggestion like the screenshot below, but there is no way to get back to the homepage or the category page

There is an “Extras” tab under the main banner of a movie/episode. They can be never-seen-before clips that viewers will appreciate. However, they could have made the tab more visible or added it to the end, in my opinion

There are some Extras clips on the mobile app that are not available on disneyplus.com.

At the bottom of the website, there is a tab called “Interest-based ads”. On that page, you can choose to opt out of behavioral targeting by ads companies on disneyplus.com

In terms of content, I am excited about National Geographic and Marvel. But to succeed, I do think Disney Plus has quite a long way to go and much to improve if they want to augment user experience

Disclaimer: I own Disney stocks in my personal portfolio

Amazon return policies

Today, I learned something new about Amazon return policies. As a Prime subscriber, I used to think that regardless of the reason behind the returns, they would always be free. I was wrong.

As I had to return some items that I didn’t like and there was no fault on Amazon or the manufacturers’ part, I was presented with esentiall two options: drive to UPS or Kohl’s store to drop off for free or pay to have the items picked up. Below are the screenshots when I choose the reason as “Bought by Mistake” or “No longer needed”

Had I chosen something that indicated the return wasn’t my fault, the options would be different

I guess it is sensible and smart of Amazon to implement this control. Otherwise, there would be abuses from customers (myself very likely, I have to admit) and the logistics costs would be even higher than what they are nowadays.

On a side note, the return experience I had at Kohl’s was very smooth. You can actually return Amazon items at any Kohl’s nationwide and all that it takes is QA code which can be stored and shown via your phone.

It made me think: how does this partnership benefit Amazon and Kohl’s? I am speculating here, but I guess this option makes sense financially for Amazon as they piggyback on the scale of Kohl’s logistics or business with shipping partners like USPS, UPS or FedEx. Instead of 100,000 items delivered a month, I imagine the deal with Amazon would bump the number up for Kohl’s. The increased volume can give them the leverage to negotiate a lower unite rate and have Amazon share the extra cost. From Amazon side, it would be cheaper to share with Kohl’s than to handle the entire costs alone.

Additionally, customers are given another option. I can imagine in some cases it would be more convenient to drop items off at Kohl’s stores than packaging and labeling the items.

On Kohl’s side, they might be banking on the fact that as customers have to come in their stores to return items, it will increase impulsive purchase in the stores.

Apple Q4 Earnings Report

Apple announced their Q4 earnings today. Below are my notes of the earnings report.

Before we go to the financial analysis that I did, here are some noteworthy remarks from the investor call (Source: Seeking Alpha)

  • This Q4’s revenue is the highest ever. The tailwin in foreign exchange was estimated to be around $1 billion
  • iPhone 11 has been the best selling phone since the launch
  • Services saw record growth in revenue in all five geographic segments
  • “For Apple Pay, revenue and transactions more than doubled year-over-year with over 3 billion transactions in the September quarter exceeding PayPal’s number of transactions and growing four times as fast. Apple Pay is now live in 49 markets around the world with over 6,000 issuers on the platform. We believe that Apple Pay offers the best possible mobile payment experience and the safest, most secure solution on the market. We’re glad that 1000s of banks around the world participate.”
  • Customers will be able to purchase new iPhone and pay for it with Apple Card over 24 months with zero interest
  • Wearables saw record revenue in all tracked markets
  • Record revenue was recorded in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam
  • “Our active installed base of iPhone continues to grow to a new all-time high in each of our geographic segments. And in the U.S., the latest survey of consumers from 451 Research indicates iPhone customer satisfaction of 99% for iPhone XR, XS and XS Max combined. Among business buyers who plan to purchase smartphones in the December quarter 83% plan to purchase iPhones.”
  • 450 million paid subscriptions compared to 330 million over a year ago
  • “We generated an all-time revenue record for Mac in the US and in India and a fourth quarter revenue record in Japan. More than half of the customers purchasing Macs during the quarter were new to Mac, and the active installed base of Macs again reached a new all-time high.”
  • “iPad revenue grew in all five of our geographic segments with a Q4 revenue record in Japan. In total, over half of the customers purchasing iPads during the September quarter were new to iPad, and the iPad active installed base also reached a new all-time high. The most recent surveys from 451 Research measured a 95% customer satisfaction rating for iPad from consumers and 97% from businesses. And among both consumers and businesses who plan to purchase tablets in the December quarter more than 80% plan to purchase iPads.”
  • Cash and marketable securities stand at $260 billion. Net cash stands at $98 billion
  • In terms of hardware as a service or as a bundle, if you will, there are customers today that essentially view the hardware like that because they’re on upgrade plans and so forth. My perspective is that will grow in the future to larger numbers. It will grow disproportionately”

The following financial analyses are what I compiled from 2014 to now. For YoY comparison, there won’t be any figure for 2014. 2014 still appears on the charts, but only because it will take me too much time on my computer to remove it. Please bear with me.

Operating Margin, Top and Bottom Line Observations

Revenue reached all-time Q4 high even though the growth is modest compared to the two previous years.

Operating income actually dropped quite significantly as the cost of sales increased, lowering both margin and the net income growth.

Product Segment

As you can see below, Mac and iPhone declined year over year. The decline was offset by growth in iPad, Services and Wearables.

iPhone still makes up more than half of Apple’s revenue, but its influence has been waning over the past years. Meanwhile, Services and Wearables have been on the rise, with the latter now bigger than iPad. Services in Q4 almost made up 20% of Apple’s total revenue.

Transition to a higher margin Services-focused company

Apple has reported figures for Product and Services for the past two years. Product segment made up 80.5% of Apple’s total revenue, down from 83% from a year ago. It was offset by the rise of Services, up to 64% from 61% a year ago. It’s a good trend if you look at gross margin. Services carries twice as big gross margin as Products.

Regional Segments

Americas is still the dominant geographic segment for Apple. China has been slightly declining, standing at around 17% of Apple’s total revenue. Rest of Pacific has been increasing, even though its size is relatively small compared others’.

However, in terms of gross profit as % of revenue, America ranks last while Japan tops all geographic segments

Operating Expense as % of Revenue

Apple has been spending more as % of Revenue on Research and Development.

Overall, it seems like a good quarter for the company with increase in revenue despite the drop in the iPhone segment. Services is on the rise and so is Wearables. Airpods Pro hit the stores yesterday and I have seen plenty of positive coverage

It’s a bit concerning that cost of sales increased this quarter, which I suspect is due to price cuts. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming quarters will be. The transition to Services and what the company has done have been positively received by Wall Streets

Disclaimer: I own Apple stocks in my personal portfolio

Amazon pays to play

A few days ago, Amazon reported its rare earnings miss, particularly on the bottom line. The primary reasons of the miss were their investments in AWS and especially their one-day delivery.

“We are ramping up to make our 25th holiday season the best ever for Prime customers — with millions of products available for free one-day delivery,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO. “Customers love the transition of Prime from two days to one day — they’ve already ordered billions of items with free one-day delivery this year. It’s a big investment, and it’s the right long-term decision for customers. And although it’s counterintuitive, the fastest delivery speeds generate the least carbon emissions because these products ship from fulfillment centers very close to the customer — it simply becomes impractical to use air or long ground routes. Huge thanks to all the teams helping deliver for customers this holiday.”

Source: Amazon

A few days later, they announced the removal of groceries delivery fees for Prime members.

While their figures missed expectations, I think they are doing the right thing. Amazon has long been about long term investments and commitment to customer satisfaction. Two-day shipping wasn’t popular until it was introduced by Amazon. It was adopted by other retailers which wanted to compete. Now, Amazon upped their game and took it to another level with one-day shipping and free grocery shipping for Prime members. They are here to play and have the means to. With their AWS making up 62% of the whole company’s operating income and free cash flow up 54% YoY, Amazon has the luxury to make long-term investments to continuously being competitive.

I understand that in some cases, Amazon came across as a bully and deserved some of the backlash. Nonetheless, I think they earned their competitive position. Kobe Bryant spent hours in the gym and took thousands of shots to get to where he was in the record book. Amazon is willing to pay to stay competitive. The question is whether other companies respond accordingly and when.

Credibility of SoftBank called into question

SoftBank has been known for being a big money player. Their investment fund, the Vision Fund, worth of $100 billion is made of mostly money from the Middle Eastern governments. They have poured money into startups around the world, including big names such as ByteDance, WeWork, Uber, Slack, Flipkart and Brandless, as well as established companies such as Sprint in the US.

By all means, being able to the tune of $100 billion is a massive undertaking. It shows the trust of investors in Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, and his team. However, three years after the money was raised, there have been concerning signs of SoftBank’s investment strategy and execution.

SoftBank’s most infamous flop is WeWork. After pouring $9 billion into the startup, the Japanese firm had to see WeWork’s IPO scrapped, its CEO and founder ousted and to plan another $10 billion bailout at a valuation that is significantly lower than what Son and his team expected (per WSJ). It’s mind-blowing that billions of dollars were invested with what seemed to be insufficient scrutiny and due diligence

SoftBank executives were alarmed by what they found looking deeper into the company’s financials, people familiar with the matter said.

Source: WSJ

In addition to WeWork, other high profile investments such as Uber and Slack haven’t met expectation either. Uber had to scale back its valudation upon going public and since being on the stock market, neither Uber nor Slack has been trading above its initial price

Source: Financial Times

Six years ago, SoftBank bought a controlling stake in Sprint. This paragraph below from CNBC summarized how the move is six years later

SoftBank successfully engineered a sale of Sprint for $6.62 per share to T-Mobile in 2018. (State attorneys general are in court attempting to quash the deal on grounds that it will unacceptably decrease competition.) But SoftBank acquired its majority stake in Sprint for $7.65 a share in 2013. When SoftBank bought Sprint, it was the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers. When SoftBank sold, Sprint was a distant fourth behind VerizonAT&T and T-Mobile.

But Sprint’s annual revenue has shrunk since SoftBank took over, from $35.3 billion in 2012 to $33.6 billion in the latest fiscal year. Recently, subscriber numbers have been dropping, and the company recorded a $1.9 billion loss last year. Still, Claure made over $40 million in compensation from 2015 through 2017, primarily because of stock awards that resulted from keeping the shares above $8 per share, which was only marginally higher than the price SoftBank paid in 2013.

Sprint even acknowledged in April it didn’t have a sustainable path forward in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission, asking for the regulator to approve its sale.

“Sprint is in a very difficult situation that is only getting worse,” the company said in the letter. “Sprint is losing customers — which then reduces revenues and cash flow — further limiting its ability to invest in its network and service its debt. Simply put, Sprint is not on a sustainable competitive path.”

Source: CNBC

Furthermore, troubles have surfaced at other startups that SoftBank invested in. Fair, an online car-leasing startup, announced that it would lay off 40% of its workforce this week. Wag, an on-demand dog walking firm, laid off more than 50 employees this year already. Brandless saw declining revenue by 54% compared to the same period last year and planned to cut marketing budget.

On the other side of all the problems that hit SoftBank lately, the Japanese firm does have success in the form of its investments in Alibaba and Flipkart. Plus, its capital allowed ideas and founders to come into life. Nonetheless, the struggles at companies listed above do call into question its hype, strategy, execution and credibility. When you want to raise an unprecedented amount of money and invest in an unprecedented fashion, you are put under unprecedented scrutiny and expectations.

Mixed Feelings from Netflix’s Earnings Report

Netflix released its earnings yesterday. There are causes for optimism and concern from what I have seen.

Important metrics improved YoY significantly

This quarter, Netflix added 517,000 domestic paid subscribers and more than 6.2 million international paid members, bringing the total subscriber count domestically and internationally to more than 60.6 million and 97.7 million approximately.

Contribution margin for domestic and international streaming is 41% and 20% respectively, resulting in the margin for streaming to be around 30%. Contribution margin of Domestic DVD is around 61%. Contribution margin represents what is left of revenue after all the variable costs to pay for fixed costs and to generate profit.

On a year over year basis, revenue, operating income and paid memberships saw remarkable growth for a company this size

Cause for concerns

Even though domestic paid memberships increased, Netflix missed its own expectation by almost 300,000, making it the second consecutive quarter that it did so. The company blamed the miss on the higher pricing elasticity than expected

That’s really on the back of the price increase. There is a little more sensitivity. We’re starting to see the – a little touch of that. What we have to do is just really focus on the service quality, make us must-have. I mean we’re incredibly low priced compared to cable. We’re winning more and more viewings. And we think we have a lot of room there.

But this year, that’s what’s hit us. And we’ll just stay focused on just providing amazing value to our members in the U.S. And I think that gives us a real shot at continuing to grow net — long-term net adds on an annual basis. But we’re going to be a little cautious on that guidance and feel our way through here.

CEO – Reed Hasting in Earnings Call (Per Seeking Alpha)

I saw a sentiment floating around on Twitter a while back that argued that Apple TV+ and Disney+ aren’t really competitors to Netflix. I mean, to some extent, they may differ a bit from Netflix, but if we want to talk about competing for viewers’ attention, time and disposable income, how can they not be? Sure, boats move different from trains, but if patrons can choose either to go from point A to point B, how can they not compete with each other? Now Reed Hasting admitted the challenge from other streamers, especially Disney+

From when we began in streaming, Hulu and YouTube and Amazon Prime back in 2007, 2008, we’re all in the market. All 4 of us have been competing heavily, including with linear TV for the last 12 years. So fundamentally, there’s not a big change here. It is interesting that we see both Apple and Disney launching basically in the same week after 12 years of not being in the market. And I was being a little playful with a whole new world in the sense of the drama of it coming. But fundamentally, it’s more of the same, and Disney is going to be a great competitor. Apple is just beginning, but they’ll probably have some great shows, too.

But again, all of us are competing with linear TV. We’re all relatively small to linear TV. So just like in the letter we put about the multiple cable networks over the last 30 years not really competing with each other fundamentally but competing with broadcast, I think it’s the same kind of dynamic here.

Source: Seeking Alpha

Chief Product Officer Gregory Peters made an important point below

I would say our job and then what we think our pricing for a long-term perspective is continue to take the revenue that we have that our subscribers give us every month, judiciously and smartly invest it into increasing variety and diversity of content where we really want to be best-in-class across every single genre.

And if we do that and we’re successful in making those investments smartly, we’ll be able to continue to deliver more value to our members. And that really will enable us to, from time to time, ask for more revenues so that we can continue that virtuous cycle going

Source: Seeking Alpha

Quite an important “if” condition there. In short, Netflix borrows capital to invest in content to the tune of billions of dollars every year and hopes that their subscriber base growth and revenue will keep enabling them to do so. In essence, every streamer will do that. Every single one of them needs to churn out quality content to convince viewers to choose their service. Failure to produce quality content to justify expensive investments will be costly for these streamers.

For Netflix, the stakes seem to higher. Other competitors have additional revenue streams apart from their streaming service. Netflix essentially relies on their subscription revenue. As this quarter shows, the price elasticity already has some negative effect, and it’s BEFORE other heavy-marketed competitors such as Apple TV+ and Disney+ debut in 2-4 weeks. The new challengers price their services at much lower points than Netflix. The room to increase price to recoup their investments faster is getting smaller. I do think a price hike will negatively affect Netflix.

Some may say: oh Amazon kept investing heavily in their early days as well and Netflix can be the same. They are not, as I wrote here. Their free cash flow continues to be in the red while Amazon was in the black for years.

The expensive bidding war for content may play into Netflix’s favor. Their huge subscriber base enables them to spread the cost much better than competitors, especially new ones that have to acquire subscribers from scratch. Hence, it can be argued that Netflix will be one of the only few standing after the dust settles. It does make sense to think about the streaming war’s future that way. As does it make sense to think that there is a possibility that the game Netflix is playing may not work out for them, given the intense competition, the decreased price inelasticity, the huge debt they have incurred and the continuous negative free cash flow.

I think that we will have more clues around the next earning call or two as we’ll see how Netflix will fare after the arrival of Apple TV+ and Disney+. Even then, we won’t know definitively who will win in the end. Fascinating times ahead.